Water buffaloes (Bubalis bubalis) were imported in the 1990s, with the view that they might be better adapted to wetter areas of New Zealand than cattle. There are two main types of water buffalo – the swamp buffalo and the river buffalo.
Swamp buffaloes are found in eastern Asia, from the Philippines to India. They are used as a draught animal and also for meat, but not for milk. A distinctive characteristic is their habit of wallowing in any water or mud that they can find.
River buffaloes are found from India to Egypt, and in some southern European countries. These have been developed as a dairy breed and butterfat from their milk is the major source of cooking oil in some Asian countries. Mozzarella cheese is often made from river buffalo milk.
Some buffaloes were imported for zoos, and surplus animals were farmed.
A large shipment of swamp buffaloes arrived in 1991, sourced from a tuberculosis-free feral population in Northern Australia. After quarantine, Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries researchers evaluated their potential in New Zealand agriculture.
In 2007 and 2008 a South Auckland company imported 65 river buffaloes from an Australian breeder, and began making cheeses with buffalo milk.
By 2008 there were still only very low numbers in New Zealand – mainly on the West Coast and in Nelson, with a few in Waikato and Auckland.
Advantages of water buffaloes
Water buffaloes can adapt to a wide range of climates, and have a productive life of up to 25 years. Their meat is low in fat and cholesterol, and they produce a high-quality hide. They are able to thrive on lower-quality feed than cattle. Water buffaloes seem resistant to ticks, probably due to wallowing. Despite their preference for living in swampy places, they are not subject to footrot and foot abscesses.
It is a commonly held view that water buffaloes only live near water, but this is not the case. While they love wallowing in a muddy pool or soaking in a slow-flowing river, they can live comfortably without doing so. However, they need plenty of water to drink and must have shade in hot climates.
Disadvantages of water buffaloes
Water buffaloes suffer in hot weather, and so must have access to shade. Being driven in the hot sun can lead to heat exhaustion and possibly death. They are less able to cope with very cold conditions than cattle, and are susceptible to a similar range of diseases.
In New Zealand, water buffaloes have been prone to malignant catarrh fever, a disease carried by sheep, and so cannot be run with sheep or on land where sheep have recently grazed.
Meat and milk production
The lean meat of water buffalo is tender and highly regarded, and has been sold in some restaurants.
Water buffalo growth rates are at least as good as cattle on poor feed, and they forage better in swampy conditions. However they cannot compete with the growth rates of cattle on good feed.
River buffalo cows produced 5–7 litres of milk per day. Their milk has twice the fat content, and a third more protein, than cows’ milk.